Which Wright is Right, Part 1: Why “Pale Realms of Shade” is superior to “One Bright Star to Guide Them”

John C. Wright has three novellas nominated for a Hugo this year: “One Bright Star to Guide Them”, “The Plural of Helen of Troy”, and “Pale Realms of Shade”. This is a fact.

This is an educated guess, or if you like it’s a claim based on anecdotal evidence: From what I’ve noticed, the common consensus on which of these three novellas is the best is, in order from (what most think is) best to (what most think is) worst, worst being relative, is “One Bright Star to Guide Them”, “Pale Realms of Shade”, and “The Plural of Helen of Troy”.

Why do I think this? Mostly just anecdotal evidence, which is a fancy way of saying I can’t prove it at all but it’s what I’ve noticed.  At any rate, I know “One Bright Star” (hereafter OBS) is John C. Wright’s favorite, Mrs. Wright’s favorite, and, of course, their editor, Vox Day’s, favorite.

But it’s not my favorite. In fact, of the three novellas, it’s probably my least favorite. In my opinion, the best novella of the three, and the best thing Mr. Wright has written outside of his masterpiece “Awake in the Night”, is “Pale Realms of Shade”, hereafter PRS. And I believe I can make the case that it is better than OBS.

In this, Part 1, I will make the case that OBS contains serious flaws. In part 2, I will make my case for PRS.

I hope Mr. and Mrs. Wright will forgive my effrontery, as I’ve been working on a project with them and they’ve been wonderful. In my defense, my argument basically amounts to, “No no, this one is only really good, it’s a DIFFERENT one that’s a masterpiece!” I mean, I still think he wrote a masterpiece.

Anyway:

Let’s start with that ending.

I hold that the ending of OBS is sloppy.

This is a strong statement, so bear with me. I plan to back this up using the author’s own words.

SPOILERS! Here on out.

To summarize the ending, Tommy, our protagonist, is in his final fight with the Knight of Shadows. He has stolen the Sword Reforged from a museum, and though he wields it the sword burns his hands. Here his companion, Tybalt, speaks:

“Tommy, by the love you bear Our Lady, I conjure you to heed me now. My time with you is done. Strike my head from my body!”

Tommy argues back and forth with Tybalt about the wisdom of killing his only friend for no clear reason. Tommy objects that he is not a child anymore, and cannot blindly obey orders. Tybalt responds:

“It is not the stalwart soldiers of the Sons of Light who question orders, Little Tommy, but willful children.”

Tommy realizes that Tybalt is right. He slices off his head, and is immediately rewarded with the ability to bear the Sword Reforged. He breaks it, destroying the Knight of Shadows.

Later, Tybalt comes back to life, declares Tommy a Wise Old Man, and sends him out into the universe to be the mentor to a new generation of heroes.

Here is the problem with it: It’s thematically muddy. I’ll let Mr. Wright himself explain why. First, he rejects the idea that Tybalt’s sacrifice was meant to represent that of a Christ figure:

Mr Beale takes Tybalt to be a symbol of redemptive sacrifice, as if Tybalt died for Tommy sins. There is nothing in the text to support this. I suppose all who died and return from death are Christ figures in the same way all women are Venus and all men are Mars, but, aside from that, Aslan is a Christ figure because he is king, and he dies to save Edmund, whose life is forfeit for his treason. Here, Tommy has committed no treason; he is the appointed champion and knight of the light.

Fair enough. He also rejects Mr. Sandifer’s interpretation of the text (to see who that is, click on the link), though with no detailed explanation as to why, apparently thinking the error obvious. He explains in the same comment:

The reason Thomas slew the talking cat was given in the text:

“Tybalt,” said Thomas, “Tell me now why I must kill you. Why?”
“I am a beast. A kindly beast is still a beast. I can guide, but cannot reason or explain. The time is come when you must guide yourself.”

The symbolism is perhaps heavy handed: The tale is about the growth from childhood to manhood. This is the moment when Thomas no longer relies unquestioning on his childhood beliefs.

The death of the beastlike non-reasoning part of his soul ignites the light of reason. However, he must break the weapon to that the light is everywhere, all around him.

This breaking is symbolic of analysis, questioning one’s own deepest unspoken assumptions. He breaks the weapon so that it can be reforged by his next student. The whole scene is a symbol of skeptical, of obedience turning into understanding.

Here is the problem I still have with this (in the interest of fairness, I will report that I think this interpretation works, just not well; Remember, I do like the novella quite a bit, I’m just being harsh here to make a point):

So, it is symbolic of obedience turning to understanding. This directly following:

  • Tybalt chastising Tommy for merely questioning orders
  • Tybalt ordering Tommy to do something wildly counter-intuitive, even barbaric (“Chop my head off, and the day will be saved!”), and expecting Tommy to obey him, immediately

And it is followed by:

  • Tommy deciding to unquestionably obey Tybalt and step into the great unknown. Only on Tybalt’s word. Without even trying to figure anything out about it for himself first.

Do you see why I find Mr. Wright’s own favored interpretation problematic?

The ending read to me as…weird. Tybalt tells Tommy to kill him. Tommy kills him, and the day is saved.

What happens after is admittedly moving though. I appreciated the idea of the boy turning into the Wise Old Man after his time to defend the true and beautiful was over. That hit the perfect bittersweet note.

There are other problems as well, though. The reason, it seems, Wright “tells” more than he “shows” in the novella is because Tommy is reminiscing about the past and experiencing it from the perspective of an adult, no longer able to see it as a child could. This is all well and good, but it doesn’t explain all the “telling”. There is a scene where Tommy tries to convince his friend Richard to join him and fight against the Knight of Shadows again. Tommy is about to be captured by evil being, and Tybalt tells him he can jump out the window and land unharmed to escape.

Tommy does not jump, and after his capture the scene ends.

The next scene takes place…at the house of another character. Tommy has escaped. He tells her about his adventure.

Why, though? What purpose does that serve? I felt as if I’d skipped a large chunk of story – and an exciting chunk at that! This was no episode from the distant past, it was a skipped piece of a story I was actually, currently reading. I’m not sure of the purpose of that.

(I did greatly enjoy the scene at Sarah’s cottage, though. That was well done.)

Anyway, those are my big complaints: The climax, and too much “telling” rather than showing. It’s still good though, still probably a 7.5 out of ten. The language is beautiful and there are many excellent scenes.

Whoo. I feel bad now. Don’t worry, next I’m going to praise the heck out of PRS. That was absolutely amazing, and should clearly be the Hugo winner this year.

  • I agree completely, I’d put PRS first, followed by PHT, then OBS for much the same reasons.